By Yisroel Feldman, Novato, CA
Monday was Memorial Day, the day that our nation gives solemn remembrance and honor and gratitude to the well over one million US soldiers who were killed in the several wars our country has fought.
The date set for this remembrance is the last Monday of the month of May. As such, it always comes out in very close time to, L’havdil, the Torah holiday – the Yom Tov of Shavuos. In fact, I well remember one year, 1984, when Shavuos came out on the Sunday and Monday of the Memorial Day weekend!
So there obviously must be some connection.
On a very general level, there is this observation. The time of these holidays is right at the beginning of the season of the year called the summer. This period, with its longer days and warmer weather, is thus a time when people take vacations from their usual business routines. The relaxation activities that very many engage in though, very tragically often involve the relaxation of standards of human decency and morality.
So against this tendency of corruption, there is the Yom Tov of Shavuos. This is the time of when the Am Yisroel is Mekabel HaShem’s Torah – the time of when the Jewish People accept G-D’s Instruction, and thus are made to realize that all activities that we want to do and all enjoyments that we want to have can only be done according to G-D’s regulations.
Also at this time, America makes, L’havdil, its Memorial Day. It is an extremely serious time when the American people sadly remember the over one million soldiers who were tragically killed in the several wars the nation had to fight. This gravely somber celebration certainly puts a solemn pale over the expected “fun” of the coming summer. Furthermore, the remembrance of death, and especially the remembrance of the sudden violent deaths of young people (who were soldiers), sharply reminds us of how very fragile our lives are. Furthermore, the remembrance of death, and the thoughts about The Creator of life that often comes with the contemplations of death, (similar to, L’havdil, the Torah holiday of Shavuos) leads man to begin to realize that it is TO G-D to Whom he must turn for life and its enjoyments.
When we examine the items more in detail, we realize that in a certain way, the Yom Tov of Shavuos itself is really like a “memorial day,” for on the second day of the Yom Tov, we actually make a remembrance of the dead — the saying of Yizkor! However, the service of Yizkor is not only on Shavuos, it is done four times a year near the end of all the major Yomim Tovim: on the last day of Pesach, on the last day of Shavuos, on Yom Kippur, and on Sh’mini Atzeres (which concludes the Yom Tov of Sukkos). So all the major Yomim Tovim have in them this aspect of a “memorial day.”
So when HaShem arranged that one of the world’s major leading nations should take on a form of a “memorial day” type celebration, why did He arrange that it should be parallel to, L’havdil, specifically the Yizkor – memorial day of the Yom Tov of Shavuos and not one of the other Yomim Tovim?
The American Memorial Day is a remembrance not of all the dead, but rather just of the dead soldiers; furthermore, it is a remembrance not of all dead soldiers, but rather, just of the soldiers who died in battle.
On the Yom Tov of Shavuos, we became soldiers. Yes, on Pesach, we were freed from the brutal, abusive Egyptian rule; on Rosh HaShanna, Yom Kippur and Sukkos, we made great further strides in our relationship with HaShem. But on Shavuos, when HaShem gave us His Torah – His Set of Sacred Instructions, we became like His “soldiers,” whom He thus commanded to carry out His tasks in His world. The carrying out of these tasks is in a way like a “fight”; of course, it is not a physical fight, it is rather a mental fight; it is a “fight” – a person’s heavy exertion of effort – to build goodness and righteousness in himself and the whole world.
The Lubavitcher Chassidim thus very aptly call the organization for their youth the “Tzivos HaShem” – the “Armies of G-D,” and on Lag BaOmer, they make in their community an actual parade of their little holy “troops.”
As explained above, on the Yom Tov of Shavuos, we celebrate our becoming soldiers of G-D. Therefore, the Yizkor/Memorial of the Dead service that we perform on Shavuos has the special function of memorializing dead who were soldiers of G-D and who died in the “battle” of the struggles and challenges of life.
Thus, it is understandable that when HaShem arranged that the world’s major leading nation of America should make a memorial celebration for its murdered soldiers, He arranged that it should be done parallel to, L’havdil, the Yom Tov of Shavuos.
In the ceremonies and programs that are held on Memorial Day, there is stressed over and over again the great obligation of HaKores HaTov – gratitude – that we owe these fallen soldiers: with their Meseras Nefesh – self sacrifice – of fighting the enemies who threatened our country, Boruch HaShem, our country endured, and today, we are able to live free productive lives here.
L’havdil, when we say Yizkor on Shavuos and remember our deceased parents and other relatives, we are specifically remembering and feeling HaKores HaTov – gratitude – to how our parents and family members, with their concentrated efforts of properly facing the challenges of life of being Ovdei HaShem, provided the foundation for us to now ourselves become proper Ovdei HaShem.